Mnangagwa’s Cabinet Fast-tracks His “Internet POSA” Bill
10 October 2019
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Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu

Paul Nyathi|Zimbabwe has inched closer to clamping down on citizens’ use of social media platforms and will likely fish out and penalize citizens who create and share what is deemed offensive material over outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cabinet yesterday hurriedly approved the Cyber Crime, Security and Data Protection Bill which will all but shrink the internet usage space for Zimbabweans who have described it as another Public Order and Security Act reincarnation this time on the internet.

The bill was first mulled under the late former leader, Robert Mugabe in 2016 and took hold in 2017 after major protests against Mugabe and economic decline broke out in Harare.

The Bill, which provides for an array of issues such as code of conduct and ethics, data protection authority and penalties for violations, will be gazetted soon representing an important step towards it becoming law. It still has to be debated and approved by parliament, in which Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF party has a majority.

This was said by Industry and Commerce Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu while briefing journalists on the 35th Cabinet decision matrix in Harare yesterday.

Mnangagwa said last week the bill has to be fast-tracked to protect Zimbabwe’s “cyber-space”. However, there is wide-spread sentiment the law is being pushed through to deal with potential uprisings, especially as public anger against the government’s austerity measures mounts up.

Minister Ndlovu was standing in for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa.

“Cabinet considered and approved the Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which was presented by the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs (Ziyambi Ziyambi.) The Bill seeks to combat cyber crime and increase cyber security in order to build confidence and trust in the secure use of information communication technologies,” said Minister Ndlovu.

He said the Bill will also address issues to do with codes of conduct and ethics.

“More specifically, the Bill provides for the following: provision and approval of codes of conduct and ethics to be observed by all categories of data controllers, data protection with due regard to constitutional rights and public interest under (the) Postal, Telecommunication and Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe,” said Minister Ndlovu.

The bill has been criticized for infringing on civil liberties if it becomes law and there are fears from rights and democracy campaigners it could also strengthen government bid to snoop on private communications of citizens. It sets out penalize people for generation and distribution of “data concerning an identifiable person knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic” harm.

“It will also seek to establish a data security centre and a Data Protection Authority, investigation and collection of evidence relating to Cyber Crime and unauthorised Data Collection and breaches thereof,” Ndlovu added.

He said the Bill will also seek to spell out the admissibility of electronic evidence for such offences and penalties for offences committed under the Act.

“The Bill will also provide penalties for the transmission of data messages inciting violence and damage to property, protection of citizens against cyber bullying and harassment, measures to address the production and dissemination of racist and xenophobic material using language that tends to lower the reputation or feelings of persons for the reason that they belong to a group of persons distinguished on the grounds set out in section 56 subsection 3 of the Constitution,” said Minister Ndlovu.

He said the Bill will provide for penalties to persons who generate, distribute or broadcast data concerning an identifiable person knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic harm; and curbing the transmission of pornographic material.

“In essence, the Bill advocates the use of ICTs for more constructive purpose,” said Minister Ndlovu.

Though there have been growing calls among citizens for Government to come up with mechanisms that control the abuse of the Internet insofar as it has been used to tarnish the images of other people and used to propagate lies and hurtful messages, some Zimbabweans are also worried Mnangagwa is pushing the bill to become law so he can use it to deal with potential uprisings fueled through social media.

WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook have become key platforms for spreading information about protests in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. WhatsApp in particular, is very well used in Zimbabwe, where it accounts for nearly 50% of all internet use in the country.

Zimbabwean government officials have long complained these platforms are being abused to spread false news, most of which is deemed by authorities to be offensive.

Mnangagwa’s government ordered a social media black-out in January this year after deadly protests rocked major urban centers following a massive fuel price hike.

The Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill “seeks to combat cyber-crime and increase cyber security” and to foster “data protection with due regard to constitutional rights and public interest” said justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi in his presentation of the bill to cabinet.

The controversial bill has, however, been welcomed in some circles, especially on the principle of “curbing the transmission of pornographic material” in the Zimbabwean context where revenge pornography leaks have become common. The Human Rights Forum of Zimbabwe said earlier this year that revenge pornography was a form of gender-based violence, hence its call for laws to regulate the transmission of pornography.

“The technology will likely be Chinese and so will be the expertise for this project (social media regulation). And it’s probably to deal with protests and uprisings,” said Ruhanya.